Book Review

Tariq Ali The Dilemmas of Lenin: Terrorism, War, Empire, Love, Revolution, 2017, Verso, £16.99, 9781786631107  

The book is not a conventional historical account of 1917 – A People’s History of the Russian Revolution by Neil Faulkner (Pluto Press, 2017) performs this task admirably – nor does it plot in detail the hugely dramatic course of events between February and October – for this there is the incomparable October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Mieville (Verso, 2017) – but for directing attention to key aspects of Russia’s revolutionary situation and the uniqueness of Lenin’s intervention, there is no book more stimulating and more likely to encourage wider reading than The Dilemmas of Lenin.

The book is structured around themes and aspects of the revolution, the tensions within them and the resultant dilemmas that confronted Lenin and fellow revolutionaries. The most telling political dilemma – the conflicting claims of libertarian and authoritarian socialism – is well explored, though Bakunin’s opposition to Marx is skirted over and there is no mention of how the anarchist communists at Kronstadt found themselves on a collision course with Lenin’s government. 

Lenin is usually depicted as ruthlessly cruel and dictatorial but Ali counters this caricature with moving accounts of his personal life. A chapter is devoted to his elder brother, who was executed for his part in an assassination attempt on the Tsar, and the nature of his relationship with Inessa Armand provides a fascinating insight into Lenin’s soul. Devastated by her early death, he walked alone at her funeral: ‘He seemed to have shrunk; his cap almost covered his face, his eyes drowned in tears held back with effort’, in the words of Angelica Balabanoff who observed his behaviour.

Ali is good at noting details: Scotland’s John MacLean opened the new Bolshevik consulate at 12 South Portland Street, Gorbals, but was not recognised as consul by the UK government and the post office was instructed not to deliver mail to that address. Britain also sent troops to Russia in the hope of deposing Lenin. Out of the plethora of new books responding to the first centenary of the Russian Revolution, The Dilemmas of Lenin emerges as the most engagingly readable account of one of Europe’s great political transformations.

Sean Sheehan is author of ‘Žiżek: A Guide for the Perplexed’ (Continuum, 2012) and a forthcoming guide to Herodotus’ Histories.